(Warning: This article contains details that some may find deeply upsetting)
The trial of the man suspected of murdering poker pro Suzie Zhao has been hit by a shocking number of delays, with news that a court clerical error has added to a near two-year wait for justice.
Suzie Zhao was a popular player in the California poker scene who often went by the name Suzie Q when she played on televised shows such as Live at the Bike.
The poker community was shocked when burnt remains discovered in a recreation park parking lot in Michigan in July 2020 were identified as being those of Suzie. A post-mortem revealed the horrific details of her final moments: Suzie had been sexually assaulted, bound and tortured, before her body was dumped and set alight while she was still alive.
Jeffrey Bernard Morris, a convicted sex offender, was arrested a couple of weeks later, on the day of Suzie Zhao’s funeral.
The initial speedy investigation, resulting arrest, and initial court appearances appeared set to give her family and friends some closure, but multiple delays have prolonged the agony.
COVID and court errors
Morris’ trial was due to take place in March 2021, but the first of several Covid-related restrictions on-court activity saw that date pushed back.
In addition, a felony murder charge was added to the original murder charge brought against Morris. That extra charge is because it was deemed that Morris had killed Zhao during the commission of a felony act, namely criminal sexual misconduct.
With the trial date already pushed back to September 2021, another delay ensued when the judge in the case agreed to a defence request for change of counsel.
Incredibly, on January 11th 2022, it was announced that a clerk had failed to file that second, felony, murder charge when the case was moved between District and Circuit Court.
The very next day, an order came through from Chief Circuit Judge Jeffery Matis that all jury trials scheduled up to February 25th would be “adjourned”.
Matis wrote: “…COVID-19 continues to materially affect the functioning of the court.”
It has already been 18 months since Suzie Zhao was killed and the latest trial date set according to court records is June 16th – “barring unforeseen circumstanceces” – bringing us just one month short of the second anniversary of Suzie’s death.
The Case against Jeffrey Bernard Morris
A preliminary court hearing in September 2020 heard evidence from several witnesses related to Morris’ arrest and subsequent investigation.
FBI Special Agent George Rienerth, an “expert in historical cell site analysis,” detailed how Zhao’s two cell phones, as well as Morris’ single phone, were in the same location – the Sherwood Motel – for long stretches of July 12th, the night of Suzie’s death.
Only Morris’s phone was tracked from the Sherwood Motel to the spot where Zhao’s body was discovered; Zhao’s phone remained at the hotel from 10 pm until 5 am.
Testimony from a Meijer store worker, Keith Hawkes, revealed that Morris was caught on CCTV stealing ‘two packages of 14” black zip ties’, along with a ‘jar of petroleum jelly’.
Police Detective Thomas Sarasin told the court that similar zip ties were found not only on Susie Zhao’s wrists and near her dead body, but also in the engine of Morris’ Audi car.
A blood-stained baseball bat was also found in his car and Morris’s DNA was found in cervical samples taken from Zhao’s body.
Morris’ mobile phone internet browsing history was said to have shown daily searches for brutal pornographic acts, the phone also containing videos of violence and murder against women.
Suzie “Q” Zhao
Susie was a well-known and much-liked part of the poker community, who played at many casinos, including the Commerce and Hollywood Park, and was a regular on the Live at the Bike stream only a few years ago.
Born in Beijing, China in 1987, Suzie grew up as the only child of her father Jingping Zhao, and mother Fang Dai. She graduated with a BA in Psychology from Northwestern University in Chicago in 2010, before turning to her love of poker.
An open-air Funeral and Memorial Service was held for Susie on August 1st 2020 in Troy, Michigan with the message ‘ “Broken heart to our one of the most strong, and excellent poker friends: Susie Q, rest in peace “ from her poker friends, and all her friends and family.’
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